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By Jason Strother
Seoul
18 December 2008

While most South Korean high school graduates are enjoying their winter vacation, others will be hitting the books. Students who do not fare well on university entrance exams enroll in cram-schools, where they study seven days a week, for 50 weeks straight. Despite all the time and money spent on extra schooling, many South Korean parents are not satisfied with the country's education, and they make great efforts to have their children study abroad.

South Korean students cheer for their seniors' success in College Scholastic Ability Test in front of exam hall in downtown Seoul, 13 Nov 2008
South Korean students cheer for their seniors' success in College Scholastic Ability Test in front of exam hall in downtown Seoul, 13 Nov 2008
Most of the Etoos Academy's 150 students spend their days in the library, squeezed into cubicles and surrounded by books. Students like 19-year-old Kim Hong Seop wake up at six and study until midnight. Even though he does not get much sleep, he says studying in this cram school is worth it.     
 
At first it was really difficult here, Kim says, but as time went by he got used to it and the school has really helped him study.

The students at Etoos did not score high enough on the national university entrance exam to enter their top choice for college. So they are studying to re-take the test.

The school's director, Lee Seung Ho, says parents are willing to pay $20,000 to enroll their children in his school.      

Lee says students in South Korea have to pass this test to go to university. Getting into a university lifts their social standing and helps them get good jobs.

In South Korea, admission into a prestigious university is not only an accomplishment for students, but also reflects on their families.

Education here is rigorous, particularly in secondary school, where students are expected to be in class or exam schools for more than eight hours a day.

But while students receive a high quantity of education, many critics say the quality is low.

International rankings of higher education compiled by the World Economic Forum put South Korea in 60th place.

Another survey, conducted by Switzerland's International Institute of Management Development, places young South Koreans in the bottom half of its list of university graduates prepared to work in a competitive economy.

Tom Coyner, president of the consulting firm Soft Landing Korea in Seoul, says tests that rely on multiple choice questions, like the university entrance exam, do not encourage students to think critically. He says that is one reason South Korean schools place low on some international rankings.

"There is this need to not waste time looking at other possible answers or issues, but to only focus on consistently choosing the one correct answer on the test and this mentality continues on into the university system," said Coyner.

Conyer says many families see the flaws in the education system and prefer to send their children to school abroad. This also helps them become fluent in English, which is seen as essential for business success.

Tens of thousands of South Korean children are sent overseas to go to secondary school or university, at great cost. In many cases, their mothers go with them, leaving fathers at home working.

But to avoid the struggle of getting visas and to avoid high tuition fees for international students, some parents go to great lengths to get their children foreign passports.

Thirty-one-year-old Jess just returned home to South Korea from the United States territory of Guam, where she gave birth to a baby girl. Being born on Guam automatically means her daughter can have U.S. citizenship.

Jess says she and her husband do not want their child to go to school in South Korea.

"We don't like the Korean education system, because it's a lot of study, study, study, study. Children, they don't know what to do, they are like robots. We think the American education system is better than Korea," said Jess.

There are dozens of so-called birth tour agencies that help mothers like Jess travel to the U.S. to have their babies. And since South Koreans no longer need visas to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days, more pregnant Korean women are expected to take this type of trip. Taking this trip now will mean their children do not have to spend years of their lives in cram schools later.

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